It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking to people who live in an alternate reality. In order to have a rational conversation about anything, there has to be a minimal set of common facts to which you can appeal. But what if you can’t even agree on what the facts are in the first place?
And no, this time I’m not talking politics, although that does increasingly concern me. No, this time I’m talking about what people believe about stories we find in the Bible.
When I first started writing and speaking to groups about my departure from the faith, I spent the bulk of my time trying to make still-believers realize how dehumanizing and insulting are the ways in which they view those of us who left. I talked about the many ways Christians misunderstand us, putting words into our mouths and motives into our hearts that we are not willing to own.
But these are all highly subjective discussions and, while they serve a useful social purpose, they carefully avoid any offense of the believer’s sensitive faith. A noble restraint on my part, I suppose, demonstrating a respect for differences of belief that I submit isn’t ordinarily reciprocated.
But the fact of the matter is that Christians accept certain things as true that are demonstrably false, and it does no one any good to tiptoe around these beliefs as if they are sacrosanct merely because people take the discussion so personally.
And I’m not talking about things we cannot entirely disprove like miracles, or the afterlife, or the power of prayer. We could argue about these things until we are blue in the face, and in the end very few people would ever change their minds. The church has had two thousand years to develop excuses for why these things fail to materialize (they usually involve faulting the believer rather than the beliefs themselves).
No, I’m talking about clearly demonstrable historical facts—facts for which we can apply reliable tools of scientific inquiry in order to ascertain what is real and what is not, what is fact and what is fiction. For today, I will zero in on one particular portion of the Bible because it is so unarguably false that I no longer want to have any of these discussions until the other party is willing to spend some time wrestling with it…
This Never Happened
The Hebrew people did not exist before Canaan. They gradually and peacefully emerged as a subset of Canaanite culture somewhere around the 1200s B.C.E.,which is roughly the time we were told they invaded the land. Before that time they simply. didn’t. exist.
The violent conquest of Canaan never actually happened. We know this for certain. We’ve gone to the places that was supposed to have happened and we dug our way down to the bottom. Didn’t happen.
The wandering in the wilderness for forty years? Also never happened. That story was made up. We canvassed that entire region a hundred times now and not so much as a coin or a piece of pottery or anything at all that would signify they were ever there.
The dramatic exodus of millions of Hebrews from Egyptian captivity? We know for a fact that never happened. It’s not even a debate anymore, not among scholars, historians, or archaeologists. The story was undeniably made up. That means that the Passover never happened. Nothing even remotely like it.
There wasn’t even a group of Hebrews in Egypt in the first place. There never was. That whole bit about 400+ years in captivity, with a dozen tribes growing into a large but enslaved nation? Made up out of thin air. We know this now.
Think about what this means for a second. It means there was no Moses. No Aaron. There was no Abraham, no Isaac, and no Jacob. There was no Sarah, no Rachel, no Leah, no Rebekah, etc. All fascinating stories, yes. And could there have been real life analogues many centuries later that got cobbled together into an origin story for the nation of Israel? That’s certainly possible.
But basically every story and every person which appears prior to Israel’s presence in Canaan around the 12th century B.C.E. is a product of pure fiction. After that, much smaller versions of the stories appear to have happened in real life: for example there probably was a King David, only his “kingdom” was more like a small insular group of technologically challenged herdsmen. But never anything like the geopolitical giant the Bible paints him, or them, to be.
I really feel like everybody around me needs to sit and soak in the gravity of this realization.
Everything that happened in the first five books of the Bible is pure fiction. And the next few books don’t get much better. They are stories made up to teach lessons and to provide some kind of political basis for competing factions of ancient Israel, quarrels which no longer mean anything to us today but leave us with the mistaken impression that this people group existed many centuries before it actually did.
Now, I hang out with atheists a lot, so I’m accustomed to hearing people dismiss the entire Bible at once as nonsense. But the reality is that at least some of what the Bible recounts probably did happen, even if in reality the magical parts didn’t. For example, it has become increasingly canon for atheists to confidently assert that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all.
But they don’t really know that. They’re simply arguing that we don’t have any credible evidence outside of the Bible itself that such a man existed, and they could be right. But on that matter I still have to point out that most biblical scholars (regardless of their religious orientation) are convinced that somebody named Jesus did exist, even if he didn’t perform party tricks or die and come back from the grave.
So the existence of Jesus is a debatable subject…but the exodus is not. Nor is anything that was supposed to have happened leading up to it nor afterward. That entire phase of Israel’s history is made up—including the sacred Passover itself—and we know this. Even their own rabbis have taken to admitting this, controversial though the admission may be.
The Dirt Doesn’t Lie
Back before World War II, biblical historians had a more limited number of resources to draw from in order to ascertain fact from fiction. They had to rummage through the annals of Egyptian and Sumerian and Babylonian historical accounts to see if this divinely favored nation ever got mentioned, but they kept coming up empty handed.
Sometimes they would come across something that sounded enough like a Bible name that they would count that as confirmation and move on. For most of them the standard of verification was very, very low. Quite frankly, in retrospect, they were wearing their desperation on their sleeves.
But instead of finding evidence of a mighty kingdom spreading across a large geographical region governed by legendary kings with hundreds of wives and concubines, all anyone could turn up was an occasional reference to a small confederation of tribal heads inhabiting negligible territories sandwiched between much more powerful kingdoms which were constantly taking them over. And nothing at all prior to their supposedly forceful conquest of the Promised Land.
Biblical Archaeology was a relatively young science at the time, but considering how difficult it was to move around in most of the territories that historians wanted to explore, there wasn’t much we could do. But then the First and Second World Wars happened and, after the region underwent a whole lot of forceful territorial reassigning, the “Holy Land” once again became open for business.Over the next couple of decades, archaeologists carried their students and volunteers on hundreds of excavation trips to every biblical place you could imagine, digging down as far as they could go in order, quite literally, to get to the bottom of what happened. What they discovered was disappointing to say the least.
There were no Hebrews prior to their gradual and peaceful emergence within Canaanite culture in the 1200s B.C.E. None of that stuff in the Bible prior to Canaan appears to have ever happened. And even when they did begin to slowly emerge as a people group, they looked and acted almost exactly like their surrounding neighbors, but with a couple of notable quirks: they left behind no pig bones, and they seemed disproportionately fond of one particular member of the Canaanite pantheon, Yahweh, the god of war.
At first, Yahweh (aka “Elohim,” which also may have referred to a whole group of gods) appears to have had a wife named Asherah. We know that the worship of the goddess still continued for centuries into Israel’s history despite many leaders’ attempts to cleanse the land of her memory (like ISIS, physically destroying monuments and disposing of her corresponding cultus). But subsequent versions of the Israelite religion became increasingly monotheistic, vehemently disavowing all of its polytheistic precursors. Occasionally you will still find remnants of this culture war preserved for us in the biblical texts.
A Valiant Attempt, Thwarted
No one walked through this eye-opening discovery more directly than William Dever, a post-war biblical archaeologist with a Disciples of Christ education who later studied at Harvard and led hundreds of students on dozens of excavations all over Israel. After a lifetime of study and first-hand exploration of the biblical lands, Dever reports:
After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible “historical figures.” Virtually the last archaeological word was written by me more than 20 years ago for a basic handbook of biblical studies, Israelite and Judean History. And, as we have seen, archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.* (emphasis mine)
Remember the story of the wall of Jericho? Didn’t happen. Archaeologists like Dever inform us there wasn’t even a wall in existence during the time the Israelites were supposed to have taken the city. And the city, which by the way was likely abandoned before these invaders were supposed to have gotten there, was in its heyday no larger than the size of a couple of baseball fields side-by-side, occupied by no more than maybe 600 people. Can you imagine a nation of over a million adults marching around such a place, waiting for something miraculous to deliver this small town into their hands? They could have just walked right in and eaten their lunch.
There is not so much as a Late Bronze II potsherd of that period on the entire site…Nor is there any other possible candidate for biblical Jericho anywhere nearby in the sparsely settled lower Jordan Valley. Simply put, archaeology tells us that the biblical story of the fall of Jericho…cannot have been founded on genuine historical sources. It seems invented out of whole cloth.** (emphasis mine)
Try for a moment to imagine millions of Israelites. According to the Bible, there were 600,000 men who left Egypt on the night of Passover. Given that most adult men counted as heads of households would have been married, and given that the Bible stories show each family punching out at least half a dozen children a piece, we are being told that somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 million people exited a nation of only about 6 million in one single evening, leaving not a single trace of their presence in that country.
So we are to believe that those 3-4 million people spent 40 years in a deserted wasteland (getting their water from a rock, by the way, with their food just falling from the sky every morning) and yet somehow left not a single trace of their presence anywhere. No evidence of their existing in Egypt, no evidence of their dramatic departure, no evidence of their presence in the wilderness for decades, and zero evidence of their forceful takeover of any territories prior to their gradual emergence among the Canaanites several hundred years after the time they were supposed to have first come to be.
In short, none of this happened. The whole story is just made up. We know this.
Do People Even Care?
If you don’t believe me, go spend a few years in the nearest theological library near you. Or better yet, sign up for an expedition to go and look in the dirt for yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Interview the people who study these things for a living and learn for yourself that we’ve known this for a long time, and just haven’t been spreading the word. I found the above citations in my own very conservative seminary’s library, but you’ll never hear any graduates of that institution telling their congregations what those books contain, if they ever even read them.
Instead, devout people will keep sharing links touting older articles repurposed for a younger audience (or are they older?) claiming that irrefutable proof has been found that the Bible stories are absolutely true. A forklift operator from Keynsham, England, who moonlights as a biblical treasure hunter swears he saw a chariot wheel on the bottom of the Red Sea (just one? Where did you put it?) and still a decade later, religious news sources are resharing the story as if anyone ever should have believed it in the first place.
But then no one can top the shenanigans of the late Ron Wyatt, a sort of self-styled Indiana Jones of lost biblical treasures. Before his death, this nurse anesthetist from Tennessee swore that he personally found Noah’s Ark, sulfur balls from Sodom and Gomorrah, the site of the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the actual Ark of the Covenant (“top. men.”), and the exact location of the crucifixion, under which he found a sample of the dried blood of Jesus (preserved for 2,000 years, no less!). Ed Brayton relayed the story of how Wyatt said he found that, btw, and you really should go read it for a good laugh.
What grabs my attention the most in all this isn’t the fact that the Bible got something so important so incredibly wrong. I got over that a long time ago, even if I continue to be impressed with just how much of this book was made up over time. What fascinates me most is the rationalization process that kicks in the moment a true believer is confronted with these realities. The mental contortions are impressive, and I can’t help but recall as I watch them happen how I myself once walked through these steps as well. I’m trying to remember what it was like to be so imprisoned by predetermined conclusions in my search for truth.
From this point forward, I’ll be happy to talk to believers about the things in this book which they are certain must be true. But until they are willing to wrestle with what the ground itself has to say about all of these stories, I’m not going to take the conversation seriously. The dirt is better at telling the truth.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (p.98-99)
** Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (pp.46-47)